What to Study For a Career in the Development Sector?

Michelle Lynn Cangelosi

July 4, 2022


Michelle Lynn Cangelosi


Many backgrounds can lead to careers in humanitarian development and international development spaces. Michelle Lynn Cangelosi, as an example, does not come from the more traditional background of human rights, social policy, or international relations, yet has spent the last 15 years working in international development. She admits “getting in” wasn’t easy.


Michelle has an undergraduate degree in Zoology and a Master’s in Environmental Engineering Sciences. However, Michelle Cangelosi believes that while humanitarian studies are focused on solving world problems, reducing suffering, and saving human lives, many backgrounds and fields of study can lend expertise to these causes and build communities.


What’s also critical, she says, “is cultural curiosity and sensitivity as well as experience living in developing nations.”


Fields of study

A wide range of studies and expertise can prepare people for careers in humanitarian work. Largely, international development focuses on improving conditions and communities, thus all areas of study can support people in developing countries.


While the education requirements for humanitarian work vary, most international aid workers have at least a bachelor’s degree. The degree that’s best depends on the type of work you are planning to do. For example, if you’d like to be a project manager for water-related programs, an engineering degree may be recommended. Or, if you want to work in healthcare, a pre-med degree or midwifery experience can be beneficial. Other fields in business administration, for example, may lend to the back-of-house needs in financial management, IT, and impact measurement.


Experience is valued

Many fields offer internships and volunteer opportunities. These programs often help you gain valuable work experience in addition to meeting others in the sector. There are various exchange programs, work studies, and volunteer programs, like the Peace Corps, that give people a hands-on education through humanitarian work.


People who choose a career in international development should have strong critical thinking skills. They should be able to analyze and question existing approaches to help craft innovative solutions. They must also be capable of adapting to changing circumstances and eager to foster collaboration across different fields. These skills are critical for humanitarians. Finally, they should be able to develop scalable and sustainable solutions through long-term effects of various programs and community support initiatives.


Benefits of development careers

A career in development can be exciting. It often affords unusual opportunities to see places that many do not get to travel to as a visiting tourist. Additionally, the work is meaningful and gives purpose. Participation in humanitarian activities can boost reflexivity and enhance one’s awareness of their own and other cultures. As such, you often become more aware and thus able to formulate innovative ideas and solutions alongside the community members.


In addition, Michelle Cangelosi mentions that you will have the ability to communicate with a broad range of people from different cultures and backgrounds. Interpersonal communication skills are paramount.


Where to look for job opportunities

There are various avenues one may research and get connected with when looking for international development sector jobs. There are plenty of nonprofits and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) around the world. In addition, there are careers with the United Nations, government aid offices, community organizations, and development banks. The options are far and wide and it is important to hone in not only on your skills, training, and expertise, but your passions and driving influences.


Michelle Lynn Cangelosi notes that she was volunteering internationally on vacations when she decided that she wanted to move into the international development arena as her career path. She took her domestic experiences in intergovernmental affairs, policy, and partnership development and offered them to the Peace Corps, where she was hired as the Director of the Office of Private Sector Initiatives, building partnerships and obtaining funding for development projects in volunteers’ host communities.


Indeed and LinkedIn have many job postings as well as some volunteer and internship offerings to get more familiar with the sector. Michelle recommends that someone wishing to go into the humanitarian development space, network and talk with a variety of potential employers as well to see how aligned they are with the culture.